We read a lot of saint stories around here. I’m always trying to read something about or by a saint, and our kids’ bookshelves are full (though never full enough!) of picture books about these great heroes of the faith. I’ve always got a few “Lives of the Saints” books stashed away in my diaper bag for taking the kids to mass and they are frequently playing with little saint dolls: either plush ones that I’ve made, or little figures like these:
So you may think I’ve got the market cornered on the whole “teaching your kids about the saints” thing. But, nope.
You see, the problem is that saint stories can be kind of… “adult.” And most of the “Lives of the Saints” books read something like this:
Saint So-and-So lived in the fourth century. Her parents tried to force her to marry some wicked dude, but she refused because she had promised that she would remain a virgin for Christ. So Wicked Dude’s parents got angry and everyone ganged up on her and killed her. Her feast day was yesterday.
“Hey mommy, what’s a virgin?”
“Mommy, how did they kill her?”
“Mommy, are people like Wicked Dude and all the horrible parents in this story still alive?”
Let me first say that my approach to handling saint stories is NOT to sugar-coat them, but prudence is definitely our ally. So, I’ve compiled a list of a few ways we tackle the Hard Truths about the saints in our family:
1. If your kids aren’t of the age to understand “virgin” in any biological sense, go for the spiritual sense. “Mommy, what’s a virgin?” “A virgin is someone who wants to dedicate their life to Christ alone. They want to give their whole selves to Jesus, so they don’t want to get married– especially to someone who doesn’t love Jesus, too.” It’s not a perfect answer, but it’s a great segue into: “There are people who give up being married even today!” Priests and nuns are great! As of yet, we haven’t had any complicating questions about the Blessed Virgin Mary, but I imagine we’ll get there soon and then I’ll have to bite the bullet.
2. Depending on the temperament of your child, there are many ways to handle the martyrdom issue:
- Let them think it’s cool. This is particularly effective with boys. St. Sebastian is the ultimate “cool” saint (this is still true with high-schoolers). There’s something about his super-hero-esque endurance (“HOW many times was he shot???”) and the romantically dangerous thrill of the *whizz* of arrows that really gets them going. It’s the same fascination that makes some kids love the idea of firefighters and police officers. Let them be fascinated.
- Bait-and-switch. First, play up the sympathy card. “POOR So-and-so!” Let them grieve for the saint for about three seconds, then finish the story (even if your book doesn’t do this!) “But she loved God so much and God loved her so much, that as soon as she was killed, guess what He did? He took her straight to heaven!” OH YAY!!!
- Don’t neglect to bring the story to the present day. Whatever your child’s emotional reaction is, use that to inform them that there are still martyrs today. Be gentle, of course, and reassure them that they are safe. But ask them to pray for all the people who are in danger because they love Jesus so much. Let them know that their prayers are very important– this gives them control over the situation and turns the focus outward.
3. Don’t force stories on your kids if they aren’t ready. Even if they aren’t martyred, some saints just don’t resonate very well with children– and that’s ok. Rather than white-washing their stories, though, you’re best just to skip over them and let the child build up the necessary “muscles” to grapple with the story. So if you have a big book of saints and you come to someone who for whatever reason seems like a bad choice to talk about, point out their virtues and their love of God and move on.
4. Be judicious about the books you let your kids read– even saint books. We had an incident a few weeks ago where our eldest daughter (who is a kindergartener) was reading a book of saints for girls that someone had given to us. One saint was heralded as the patron saint against men. Another story focused exclusively on the saint’s powers of levitation and performing wild miracles, without conveying anything of her piety. Then we realized that the rest of the book was basically a “girls are cool, boys drool” collection and that book was quickly trashed. Our daughter was upset, but we preferred to deal with that than let the book stay in the house. Saints should never compete with one another, nor should they encourage the child to imagine the saints as “magicians” instead of holy people. One can tell the same story, but with different language and different emphasis– at the end of the day, inspiring the child to holiness is the most important thing.
5. This goes hand-in-hand with the previous one, but choose “good” books. If it’s a book about the saints that looks like it was illustrated by a three-year-old, don’t buy it. Hold holy literature to the same standards you do for other kid books. We try to buy books that have gorgeous illustrations and challenging, positive vocabulary– this goes for anything we read.
6. Don’t forget to “bring it home.” The Church has saints for two main reasons- to emphasize our connection with them in the Communion of Saints and encourage us to ask them for help, and to give us models of holiness so that we are better equipped to seek the Good in our own lives. You don’t have to beat kids over the head with these messages, but children need to know that saint stories aren’t just for fun. They are fun, but the point is that WE are also called to be saints and we can learn about different ways to love God through learning about the lives of the saints. Invite your children to imagine how wonderful it would be to talk with their patron saint in heaven. Tell them that the saints are like our cheerleaders in heaven and they can’t WAIT for us to get there, too. Talk about purgatory. Ask them to pray for the dead who are on their way to heaven, just as the saints pray for us.
The saints occupy a very special place in the imaginations of children. They are real people, yet they can feel totally “other,” as if they belong to the realm of faerie. Use this to your advantage when teaching your kids about their lives, rather than shying away from it– and don’t forget to maintain some of that imagination for yourself. This is the most important one:
7. Cultivate a love of the saints in your own life. Develop friendships and really get to know them. Kids are the most perceptive people on the planet. They’ll see. And they’ll learn from you.
Who are your favorite saints to teach your children about?
What do you do when saint stories seem inappropriate or challenging for your kids?
What are your favorite picture books or compilations of saint stories?
Let me know in the comments!